Category: Pronunciation

Teaching a deaf student EAP oral skills

Teaching a deaf student EAP oral skills

Since October I’ve had a student in my class who is practically deaf, especially if she hasn’t got her hearing aid.  The class that she’s taking with me is actually an Oral Skills class; it’s the first class of an EAP programme and focuses on presentation and seminar skills. Clearly, not being able to hear makes it quite a lot more difficult than normal. But we’re slowly finding our way! We’re halfway through semester now, and I think I’ve got some strategies that might be useful for anyone else who has a deaf or hard of hearing student in their English language classroom!

In my case the student, let’s call her Mary,  did her A-Level equivalents at a normal high school, so she had her whole school career to develop good strategies that can help her to learn various things in various ways. She knows what the teacher can do to help her best and so I have gradually learnt how I can help her, especially with these oral skills that are the focus of our course. I thought I’d use this blog post to share some of what I’ve learnt.

I guess the most important thing is really to have an individual conversation with the student – probably more than one conversation actually! Some of the basic adaptations I’ve made based on such conversations are probably no surprise, for example providing transcripts of any audio texts we listen to or videos we watch. Working with a transcript, the focus of the task is then shifted to reading comprehension rather than listening comprehension, but this is more in line with what Mary’s likely to need in her future use of English. On this module, we’ve been watching videos that demonstrate good and less good presentation skills, and it was hard for her to read the transcript at the same time as watching the presenter. Also, I sometimes needed to type the transcript out especially, which became quite time-consuming. I solved these problems by choosing a focus according to what my goals were for the task. For example, if we were looking at presentation style or use of visual aids, understanding the content of the example speech was less important, so I stopped giving Mary the transcripts for these tasks, and asked her to concentrate on looking for what makes a good or less good presentation style, or whatever.

The audio practice tests that we’ve done often intended to help students develop note-taking skills for use in lectures or seminars. This is something Mary will always have to work hard on and talk to individual teachers about getting help with, especially as there’s usually no transcript for a lecture. But she has also learnt the importance of having a study group to compare notes with. Mary can take notes from the extra reading  without problem, so she often takes responsibility for this in the study group, and then ‘swaps’ these good notes for another student’s good lecture notes. It’s perhaps less than ideal, but makes the best of a difficult situation for Mary.

In terms of understanding me when I talk to the class, Mary has a special device that goes with her hearing aid. It’s a mini-microphone that I clip to my collar which amplifies everything I say and kind of ‘beams’ it straight into her hearing aid! This has obviously been a great help, though she still needs to lip read to really understand. And what a feat learning to lip read in a foreign language!  One little thing I’ve learnt is that wearing lipstick is apparently really helpful: when the lips are more clearly defined it’s easier for her to lip read. And I also have to remember to wear something with pockets on the days we have class, so I don’t have to carry the battery pack for the mini-microphone around in my hand all lesson!

As part of her self-study, which is required for the credits for the class, I’ve sent Mary a few links to videos to help her with lip-reading in English. Initially, I introduced her to the website which is for English speakers who lose their hearing and have to learn to lip read.  Later, I also sent videos that were made for phonetics classes and the like, which feature close-up videos of how different sounds and words are pronounced in English. Hopefully these will also help her with her own pronunciation. Although Mary is quite clear to understand when she speaks, there are elements of German interference on her English accent which she can’t really eliminate just by lip-reading. I think it’s important here to work on ways to enable Mary to see and/or feel these pronunciation features that are hard to see. The phoneme /r/ is a particular problem, for example, but we’re working on ways to help her feel the difference in articulation between German and English, by feeling which parts of the speech apparatus are used (e.g. by placing her hands on her throat to feel the vibrations of the German uvular fricative). Recently, we even did a lesson on intonation, and helped Mary to see (through gesture and movement of the head) and feel (which muscles are used in the throat) pitch movements for emphasis or in questions versus statements. 

Group work is something that has been quite tricky. While the other students understand why I mainly look in Mary’s direction when I’m speaking to the whole class, they’re not so good at doing the same themselves! In group work she’s better off in a smaller group where she can clearly see who’s speaking and read their lips. This was tricky at first with students who were nervous, mumbling, holding their hands a pen, or playing with their hair in front of their mouths! But I’ve managed to discern a few very clear speakers who Mary can work well with. Needless to say it’s been a bit of a learning curve for everyone in the class!

Now, in the second half of semester, students are giving group presentations. Mary’s a bit wary about giving them the extra device for their collars because passing it around increases the likelihood of it being damaged. But lip-reading in a foreign language from a speaker who’s speaking the language as a foreign language themselves is proving really quite difficult. What we’ve decided to do them is to show other students in the class the same videos as I sent Mary. This way, everyone can work and their articulation and on enunciating sounds and words clearly, which will be better for their own language production and also enable Mary to better lip read their presentations. 

Something we haven’t been able to solve yet is how to enable her to better follow when students around the classroom are sharing their answers to a task we’ve done. We’ve rearranged the desks so that we sit in a big U shape which at least allows her to look at whoever’s speaking. Sometimes, though, the answers are quite short so one person is only speaking for a very brief moment before the next person starts, which makes it hard for her to keep her up. As a group we’ve now discussed strategies such as the speaker raising their hand so she knows who to look at, and me pointing to the person I want to share their answer rather than just saying their name. These things are taking a bit of practice to get used to but seem to be working ok for now!

I have to say, I’m really glad to have Mary in my class. Not only is she a conscientious and pleasant student, but  devising and developing these strategies to help her improve her oral skills has been a great new aspect to my professional development! And I hope that I’ve been able to show in this little blog post just how easy it can be to integrate a deaf or hard-of-hearing student into an English langauge class!

Phonology in ELT – A Manifesto

Phonology in ELT – A Manifesto

“Achieving Phonology’s Potential in the ELT Classroom”

   – A very inspiring talk by Adam Scott on 5th April at IATEFL 2017 in Glasgow. 

In his talk, Adam presented his manifesto, a call to arms, to bring about a shift towards higher awareness of the importance of phonology in ELT. He’s convinced that we will experience ‘learning by doing’ and gain new insights into phonology and techniques for teaching it, if we just start teaching it! Here’s what he said:

More phonology – Why?

It can motivate students to understand phonology and the ‘mysterious’ relationship between spelling and pronunciation.

Discussing pronunciation as a group can help make teachers more responsive to students’ needs.

Having students tackle misunderstandings due to pronunciation can make classroom interaction more authentic and closer to real-world conversations.

It trains processing and noticing, and allows a focus on what causes communication to break down (rather than focussing on an idealised accent).

Adding feedback on pronunciation etc. can generate more learning at any stage of a lesson.

Chunking grammar as connected speech phrases can aid recall; it is more efficient for memory as the sound shapes and grammatical patterns will be stored together.

More phonology – How?

Have a pronunciation sub-aim which fits in with the other aims of the lesson/tasks, on either receptive or productive skills.

Include plenty of well-contextualised examples of the use of spoken language in lessons.

Approach phonology in a way that promotes collaboration with and between students.

Stop being the interpreter for students! Encourage them to work with and in the language together, e.g. get them to ask each other if they don’t understand something someone has said.

During discussions, etc., identify the pronunciation issues students find most difficult and that most hinder comprehension, to work on these in specific pronunciation practice tasks.

Give specific feedback, not only on the pronunciation of individual words, but also on other phonological features of connected speech such as linking, stress, etc. Immediate feedback can also help other students to learn from one person’s difficulty.

Help students to forge the link between visual and audio representations of words; they should Look (at the written word), Listen and Repeat (model pronunciation).

Help students to process new sound patterns not found in their L1, by mapping the sounds onto the complex English spelling system, e.g. with the IPA or phonics.

Pairwork requires mutual intelligibility – and the teacher can monitor both task progress and phonological features that allow mutual comprehension.

Recycle tasks that were used for another purpose by creating a pronunciation/phonological focus, e.g. on contrastive stress, phrasal verbs vs verbs + prepositions.

Hot tip: Put the IPA transcription of new words above / in front of the written form of the word, so that it gets students’ main attention.

Hot tip: Use underlining to show which letters together make one sound in a word, e.g. s a nd w i ch e s


These tips show that it is easy to fit more phonology in to our current teaching practice; it means minimal extra work for teachers, but could lead to great pay offs! Adam is advocating the need for innovation in L2 pronunciation teaching, and after this talk, I’m very much inclined to agree!

Adam’s slides are available here from his highly recommendable website:



Minimising a German Accent in English – Avoiding Devoicing

When German speakers learn English as a foreign language, there are many aspects of their pronunciation which can ‘give them away’ as being a German speaker. Some of these are very obvious and have been the butt of many jokes (See the Berlitz language school advert: “We are sinking” ~ “What are you (th)sinking?”). However, more advance learners soon fix these pronunciation errors. There are, however, a couple of aspects of pronunciation that can still make a German sound German when speaking English – and one of them is devoicing. Although most English native speakers may not notice this ‘unusual’ pronunciation, teachers will definitely pick up on it, and it can sometimes have important effects on the communication of meaning. This post should help teachers and German speakers understand what is meant by “devoicing” and what exactly leads to this pronunciation problem.


First of all, we need to understand a little bit of phonology. Namely the point that consonant sounds in English are either voiced or voiceless. When voiced sounds are produced, the vocal chords are close together and the air flow has to force its way through, which causes the vocal chords to vibrate. If you feel your throat whilst saying ‘mmmmm’, you should feel these vibrations. 

In contrast, when voiceless sounds are produced, the vocal chords are apart, and the air flow can pass through without causing the vocal chords to vibrate (= no vibrations!).  If you feel your throat and say ‘fffff’, you shouldn’t feel any vibrations.

You can find more information on which sounds are voiced and voiceless here:

This distinction between voiced and voiceless sounds is also accompanied by another feature which helps us to distinguish the sounds of English: the force with which the air flow is pushed out.

Voiced sounds are usually made with relatively weak breath force, and little muscular tension (because the vocal chords vibrate to make the sound, strong aspiration isn’t needed). This is called lenis articulation.

In contrast, voiceless sounds are usually made with more breath force and higher muscular tension (because there are no vibrations, strong aspiration is needed to make the sound). This is called fortis articulation.

So, generally:    voiced = lenis                   and                        voiceless = fortis

Devoicing is what we call it when a sound that is usually voiced, or ‘lenis’, is articulated with less vibration than usual, or no vibration at all.  In most cases, it is plosives and fricatives where devoicing is most noticeable. Because of the weak breath force of lenis sounds, though, it is still possible to distinguish a devoiced/lenis sound from the voiceless/fortis sound articulated in the same place and manner, which will be produced with more aspiration.

For example, when devoiced, /b/ can still be distinguished from /p/ (the voiceless consonant articulated in the same place and manner), because /p/ is fortis and we can hear the difference in the force of articulation.

When this devoicing can happen in English depends on the phonetic environment, i.e. the other sounds that are around the sound we are looking at. For example, at the ends of words, the vibration of the vocal chords is generally slightly less strong than at the start or in the middle of a word, and so consonants at the ends of words are often devoiced. This means that the pronunciation of /b/ in the words ‘bath’ and ‘cab’ can be slightly different in that the /b/ in ‘cab’ can be pronounced with less vibration, but basically they are the same sound – and not devoicing would also be acceptable.

In contrast, in German, the consonants at the ends of morphemes are always voiceless – this is not a devoicing of the voiced sound (where we would still distinguish it based on the force of aspiration), but the sound is actually a voiceless/fortis sound in its own right. For example, the standard pronunciation of the German words ‘Rad’ (bike) and ‘Rat’ (advice) is the same, and the consonant sound at the end of both words is /t/, the voiceless alveolar plosive.

In many regions (often around Trier, where I teach!), plosives are also often devoiced in German when they are at the beginning of a word or morpheme and are followed by /r/ or /l/. Although this is non-standard, it is very common. Think of, for example, the colours /plaʊ/ and /kraʊ/ 🙂

Many Germans learning English have difficulties with devoicing, as they transfer what they do in German pronunciation to their English pronunciation, and simply replace the voiced sound with its voiceless equivalent. However, the strong aspiration highlights their mistake. Using a voiceless/fortis sound instead of a devoiced/lenis sound not only sounds very unnatural, but it can also change your meaning entirely! For example, imagine on a camping trip you say to a friend, /pli:z pʊt ðɪs naɪf ɪn maɪ bæk/ !!!